Helene Darroze at The Connaught: Two starts mostly justified (December 2013)

Expectations run pretty high when visiting a restaurant with two Michelin stars and while the food at Helene Darroze utterly merited such an accolade, the service was disappointing and could be worked upon. The experience here is all about classic French dining in a luxurious setting. This is not for the young or trendy (or for those without deep pockets) and indeed the atmosphere at lunch was somewhat akin to hushed reverence. Whether this was a function of the clientele (mostly suits or well-heeled ladies who lunch) or the attitude imparted by the waiting staff was not clear, but I have certainly dined in many livelier locations. The attitude of the staff did indeed border slightly on the supercilious, almost suggesting that we – the diners – should be grateful for participating in this culinary experience. Against this background, one should certainly not expect to be brought the wrong bottle of wine or to have to wait inordinately long for the bill, having requested its twice. Despite these quibbles, however, the food (and wine – when it eventually arrived correctly) were absolutely stand-out. Our party of five all opted for the set lunch menu, offering a choice of three starters, mains and desserts. My oven-roast multi-coloured beetroots served along with wasabi-seasoned ricotta was both beautifully presented and executed with harmonious balance and flavour composition. My dining comrades were similarly pleased with their squash ravioli and venison gravlax options. The starters set the tone for the mains and my piece of beef was amazingly tender and paired with one of the richest and luxurious sauces I have ever sampled. Although the wine list was dauntingly large and would have better perused on an iPad (per Gordon Ramsey’s initiative and yet something the sommelier at the Connaught witheringly dismissed as a possibility), we found some lovely and reasonably well-priced options to pair with the food, a white from the Maconnais and a superb 2005 Leeuwin Estate Cab-Merlot from Western Australia. The sign of a good meal is undoubtedly when one is comfortably satisfied but not bloated by its conclusion and this fortunately proved the case here. Notwithstanding the wait for the bill, things ended on a high note: wonderful coffee from a dedicated menu (beans from locations as diverse as Honduras and Hawaii – although at £5, probably one of the most expensive espressos around) served along with a selection of chocolates/ sweets interestingly presented in old-style jars from a trolley. Small cakes to take away too was a nice final touch.